It is “a fine feeling,” M.F.K. Fisher notes, “to have a long-held belief confirmed. It adds a smug glow to life in general.” But what about a long-held belief that remains unconfirmed? Suspicions appear in the darkness of solitary watches, easily magnified by ill fortune. We draw lines that create figures like those in astrological charts which will explain the mythical success of others while limning the chimeras of our own bad luck. Surely, we can revise the accepted wisdom and say that, if not in the stars, our destinies must lie in the connections we faintly perceive between these stars.
My first sightings were made from the fifth floor of a cold water flat on East 43rd Street in New York City in 1952. The bells of St. Agnes next door rang out pretty regularly day and night, shaking the common wall between us but to celebrate other epiphanies; usually, as I cooked up a concoction called Kraft Dinner. The instant macaroni and cheese dinner cost 14 cents a box. Overripe avocados were five cents each and tricky to get back to the apartment in one piece. I’d pick up these supper items on my way home from my job with a press agentry whose clients were dance and concert artists. Lately, I had been wrapping and mailing a recording of Lotte Lehman singing one her several farewell performances at Town Hall. The pay barely covered my rent, the macaroni and avocados, and an occasional beer in Greenwich Village. Other classmates were doing better. Corky was being paid twice what I was getting as a copyboy for The New York Times. But, in my austere opinion, the integrity of his poetry was being suborned by the Ochs family. Come to think of it—wasn’t one of the Ochs daughters in our class? Hadn’t she timidly tiptoed around our off-campus Bohemian enclave in Providence, and —now, it came back—hadn’t Corky walked her back to her dorm once or twice? Is there a line to be drawn, a connection to be made?
Meanwhile, I holed up in my digs, and turned up the electric heater and lit the stove oven. It was a cold winter. I wrote stories which I sent to The New Yorker and which came back with the regularity of the masses said next door, but, recently, a personal note had been penned on the printed rejection form. Parts of the story had been “enjoyed” by some of the editors, it said, and I was invited to send more. But which parts had been enjoyed? Was it a matter of not enough parts to be enjoyed or not enough editors enjoying the parts that there were? I stirred the ambiguity into midnight cups of instant Néscafe.
So by the time my mother blew into town from Philadelphia, where she taught at a small college, my own integrity, like Gogol’s overcoat, was wearing thin and the winds were bitter. Rotten fruit from a warmer clime had soured my stomach. “Come to dinner with us,” she said. “You’ll enjoy meeting Rose.”
“Who is Rose?” I ask.
“She was Gorki’s last secretary. Or whatever.” She rolls her eyes.
“You mean Gorki of The Lower Depths?” My mother has looked away, around the Walgrens in Grand Central where we have met. It’s up the street from my apartment, and she’s on her way downtown to stay with a friend in the Village.
“Well, maybe it was Trotsky,” she says finally. “One of those people.” Her wave of hand encompasses the entire Bolshevik pantheon.
How she met some of these people, I have never discovered. I suspect it was through the classified ads, advertising rooms for rent. One time, in the 1930’s when my parents lived apart, I joined her in New York during a school vacation, to find her renting the back room of a railroad apartment jammed with Spanish speaking refugees from Franco’s Fascist revolution. The manuscript of her dissertation at Columbia was spread out on her narrow cot. I slept elsewhere on a borrowed sofa or a friend’s pull-out. Another time, another alcove was reached through a kitchen where men and women plotted their return to Cuba, to join up with Sgt. Batista. The brands of the politics were unimportant to her; all she wanted was a place to sleep and a surface on which to write her thesis on Philip Freneau, the poet of the American revolution.
The talk in all these places was as peppery as the aromas of the cooking; hectic, exotic accents that boiled up in language and stew pots through which she would inch sideways with all the fixed graciousness of a tolerant tourist. So, I assume the mysterious Rose, confidante to one of the Bolsheviks, had been met in the left wing of such a habitat. In any event, the prospect of a meal in a restaurant, and a French restaurant at that, was too rich a gift for my virtue to deny. I met them at Pierre au Tunnel which, in 1952, was located west of Eighth Avenue in the 4O’s.
Recently, I have looked Rose up in reference books, her obituary appears in one of these, and I learn that she was the author of several children’s books and had been a regular contributor to numerous magazines and newspapers, especially The New York Herald Tribune Book Review. She had been born in Rumania, but no reference is made to her political liaisons. Surprisingly, her birthdate makes her four years my mother’s senior, because the woman who looks up from the menu of the French restaurant and takes my hand looks quite a bit younger. A soft cowl of coal black hair encompasses a face whose dark, lustrous eyes look past my shoulders as my mother makes the introductions. These eyes review the plate rails around the dining room, then the candles on the tables, then the napkins and service china. It is a youthful, vagrant focus; yet, it takes in everything, everyone instantly, wasting no time on irrelevant details.
She speaks with a faint Oxonian accent that sometimes lies too lightly on a foreign sound that rises to the surface of her speech, and she smiles engagingly as if to dismiss this different fluency from another life. She reminds me of those slightly untrustworthy and dangerous women I have come to appreciate in Hitchcock spy movies, so when I take the chair beside her, something happens to my breathing. I am sitting next to a handsome woman who had typed manuscripts, or whatever, for men who had changed the history of the world.
“What wine will we have, Ellen?” she asks with an amused expression. How she holds up the modest carte du vin; we might be dining at the Ritz. Her hands are small, the fingernails neatly manicured, clear polished.
“Oh, anything,” my mother replies. Her lack of experience sometimes lent her an unmerited sophistication.
“I think this beaujolais will do nicely,” Rose says. The three syllables of the French unroll like a sunny hillside above the Rhone. “Let’s have a whole bottle,” she tells the waitress.
“Oh, my,” my mother says.
Just as curious as to how these two women knew each other is the question of what the three of us are doing ordering coc-au-vin in this near-empty, unpretentious bourgeois restaurant in mid-Manhattan.
“That sounds good,” my mother has said. “Chicken. I’ll have that too.”
What was the connection that brought us to this table? How did our stars come into this brief alignment, though by the time the salad was served—after the entreé in those days—it is clear that I have become the evening’s focus. As usual, my mother has taken on the responsibility for the conversation, and the anecdotes of writers she had known (what this editor did to my father or that critic failed to say) have made Rose smile with a cool civility. She has been directing more and more of her remarks toward me, a kind of casual test going on. Who have I been reading? What was I writing?
“Oh, just last month,” my mother exclaims, “The New Yorker almost bought one of his stories.”
“No, no,” I quickly say. “Far from that.”
“Now, you know, Hilary, that’s not true.” My modesty is an affront to the truth. She goes on. “They even wrote him a personal letter. Talked of how much they liked his work.”
“That’s wonderful,” Rose says and leans toward me. Centuries of campfires glow in her gypsy eyes. I am sorry to have no secrets to pass on to her; no cause or government to betray. I would tell her everything. I am suffused with a well-being that goes from top to bottom as the rich meal settles in my belly. What an odd and wonderful life it is that seats a beautiful and probably dangerous woman at the same table with a young, unsuccessful writer. Certainly this must be the sumptuous reward coming to me for those long, cold nights huddled beside the hum of the electric heater, alone and whacking the L. C. Smith. All those rejection slips in my desk drawer are being cashed in, and my solitary vigils are about to be rewarded. There’s more to come.
One week later, a letter to me arrives in the office mail. The return address is The New York Herald Tribune Book Review. A woman named Belle Rosenbaum inquires if I would be interested in reviewing books for the Sunday book section.
“Are you going to use your real name?” Corky asks me. I have just told him of my good luck as we have a beer at Minetta’s Tavern in the Village. He has sighted the question with one eye lined up along his index finger. I’m the target.
He laughs at something that would be as clear as day to anyone in the bar, and, in fact, he has looked around the place. “Some people might make the connection. You know what I mean?” The question narrows his expressions even more.
What my father did for a living never made much difference to me until I moved East from Kansas City; until I decided I wanted to write. Nowadays, it seems pretty common for a son or daughter of a famous person, to use that connection to wedge a foot in a doorway while sometimes putting a knee into the parental groin; not such an impossible trick as the rhetoric might suggest. And what’s the difference? Why not use the relationship, if junior can write or edit a line on his own? However, when I came to New York, I avoided those newspapers, magazines or book publishers that might have given my application—as the son of a famous poet— special attention.
But Corky’s prosecutorial zeal has struck a flaw in my self-righteous armor, for I had already speculated that Belle Rosenbaum might have been intrigued by the idea of having Edgar Lee Masters’s son review books for the Sunday Book Review. And how would she have known about this connection? The mysterious and beautiful Rose, of course. Morover, Corky can remember certain undergraduate beer sessions, not so long ago, during which my ignorance of literature always guaranteed a certain merriment, though it was an ignorance I obstinately maintained to set me apart from my father. So, because of this privileged information, he is laughing at my invitation to review books for the Herald Tribune, but it is a mirthless laughter. As a copy boy on the Times, as a young poet and a Phi Beta Kappa in literature, a similar opportunity has not been offered to him. In Minetta’s Tavern we have come to a division in our young careers, high and low, and I am not sorry.
The review not only uses my real name in the by-line, but I have put in my middle initial as well. The article appears in the December 7th, 1952, issue of the Book Review, and I am paid 13 dollars and change. The only copy I have is the one my mother framed and which she was to hang on the different walls of the different rooms she was to inhabit in the next 40 years. The piece reads not all that bad. The unsuspecting Sunday reader might think he or she was encountering the measured, judicious evaluation of a seasoned man of letters. The novel was found to be worthwhile though, regrettably, “a rather ordinary love-triangle” has been imposed on this view of small town mid-America. “It seems unfortunate,” the judgment rumbles on, “that so much labor was devoted to the ordinary (that word again) drama of three worthless leading characters rather than to the rich potential of the supporting cast.”
Did the night sky cleave open above East 43rd Street? Did the bells of St. Agnes peal with secular rapture? I remember reading the review aloud, over and over, to the cockroaches. We found nothing to improve; not a word could be changed. No more Kraft dinners; I was about to join Edmund Wilson at the Century Club. In fact, I blow the whole check on fresh oranges, two steaks and a bottle of Italian Swiss Colony red wine. Of course, the next time I see him, Corky never mentions my triumphant appearance in print. Minetta’s is festooned with greasy Christmas decorations, a festival that appropriates my own mood. Of course, he’s seen the review; by-line, full name with initial. I buy an extra round of beers.
But later, I take his silence as a kind of warning to get my hubris under control; so, I go back to macaroni and squishy avocados and to my own stories, sending them out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic—even to Argosy. I must wear gloves to type them up for January of 1953 gets even colder. At last, the season finally turns warmer, and the bells of St. Agnes tune up for Easter, shaking the walls of my apartment with their tympany. Belle Rosenbaum calls to ask me to do another book for the Trib. It is a collection called The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, by John Cheever.
If I could stop the narrative at this point, go back to revise my subsequent actions, shift time and plot as can be done in fiction, would the outcome be any different? These long-held beliefs that harden into galling asteroids have a way of picking up new material in their course, as if to verify their existence. Besides, speculation is always more interesting than proof. Religions are successful in proportion to the number of ways their scriptures can be interpreted.
Even this brief digression to consider these phenomena has jarred the telling, has thrown it out of sequence, for my phone has been ringing in that apartment across from the Chrysler Building. My mother is calling to share some family news. I tell her of my new assignment; John Cheever means nothing to her, but her response puts this narrative back on track.
“Let me tell you about Irita Van Doren,” she says on the telephone. “She came from some dinky little school in the South to go to Columbia, and that was where she met Carl Van Doren. He was teaching composition or something in the graduate school, and she was one of his students. When he left Columbia to go to The Nation, he took her with him. She sold advertising or whatever. Somewhere along the line, they got married. Then, when the opening on the Herald Tribune came about, he got her that job as editor of the Book Review. He was getting ready to dump her about then. Later on, she took up with Wendall Willkie. She wrote his speeches and whatever. I hear she drinks.”
“Is that so,” I say.
“Oh, the Van Doren brothers made themselves very grand,” she continues. “Everytime your father and I would turn around, there would be Carl and Mark Van Doren. At Dreiser’s parties, they’d show up. Hang around.”
“Weren’t they invited?”
“Of course, they were invited,” she says in the moment it took to review the guest list. “They were from Illinois, like your father. But you’d never know it.”
Mark Van Doren, Carl Van Doren—these names in my mother’s distant day book meant little to me. The name of importance to me is Belle Rosenbaum, Irita Van Doren’s associate editor, who has asked me to review the Cheever collection. Yet, history has a way of seeking its own order, as Rose might agree, and so, several years later, another phone call pulls me into my mother’s worn narrative to make me a part of the pattern.
I am now living in Hyde Park, N. Y., some years removed from the cold water flat on East 43rd St. I have even married in the meantime. One evening someone calls to say that my brother is on television; that my brother has just been introduced as the next challenger to the phenomenal Charles Van Doren, son of Mark Van Doren. My mother had never mentioned Charles Van Doren; perhaps, he had been too young to be invited to Dreiser’s parties, but here he appeared on the quiz show “Twenty-One” like a gnomic oracle, winning large sums of money by answering all sorts of questions with his encylopedic memory.
But it is not my half brother who is stepping into the other isolation booth; rather it is my cousin Dexter who slowly materializes on our black-and-white TV screen. The show’s producers must have made a mistake in family connections. Or maybe they stretched the relationship to promote this confrontation: the sons of poets squaring off against each other.
Had Dexter misled the producers of the quiz show? My father sometimes complained that his nephew misrepresented himself as a son. Maybe there had been a casting call for poets’ sons and Dexter showed up? But why had my cousin stepped into the other isolation booth and slipped on headphones that were supposed to blank out answers shouted from the audience? Dexter had been a founder of Consumer’s Union, a pre-Nader advocate of honest advertising and fair product manufacture. What was Dexter Masters doing on this quiz show that was to be exposed as a total fraud? Van Doren had been given the answers all along. But my cousin flunked out in the first round on a music question. Had Dexter taken a dive? “What did I tell you,” my mother said.
“There’s something immoral about it,” I am saying to my friend Nick Pileggi. It is now 1980 and we are ordering enormous hamburgers in Costello’s, a hang-out in the east 40’s for journalists from the N. Y. Daily News, a few blocks over. The restaurant used to be located around the corner on Third Avenue, under the steel piers of the El, near my old apartment, but I never ate there in 1953. The chops and London broils, even the hamburgers, were beyond my budget then. A couple of times, maybe once putting down the Cheever collection, I walked over for a Rheingold. As I sipped the beer, I looked at the huge murals James Thurber had crayoned on the walls of the place. These same cartoons of domestic anger, witnessed by quizzical animals, have been carefully transferred to the walls of the restaurant’s new location where Pileggi is waiting for me in 1980. Both the El and the Trib are long gone, but Pileggi is both the same and different.
When I lived on East 43rd Street, Nick was working as a copy boy for the Associated Press, later to become the wire service’s New York City correspondent. By 1980, he has helped found New York magazine and, as a free lance journalist, is a regular contributor to other journals. He will eventually write the study of mafia life, Wiseguy, By 1980, I have published three novels, one offered by Book of the Month and optioned for a motion picture, and I have founded a weekly newspaper in Hyde Park, N. Y., where I witnessed cousin Dexter misidentify something by Brahms. Meantime, Nick and I have not done all that bad.
“What’s so immoral?” he asks, handing his menu to the waiter. The linkages between organized crime and so-called straight society that have been his beat give him an understanding of how odd pieces of string can sometimes tie up to reach interesting lengths. He seemed the perfect ear for my gripe.
My morning mail had included a notice from the National Endowment for the Arts, telling me my application for a fellowship had been turned down once again. The NEA has also enclosed, perhaps to inspire collegial congratulations, the names of the lucky winners.
“Well, maybe not immoral but the names of several poets connected with the St. Marks in the Bowery poetry project are on the list, and the judges’ list includes people who are also part of the St. Mark’s project.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Pileggi has an indifferent way of asking such questions, as if he’s not interested; perhaps to provoke more information. Or maybe he is really bored.
“Because the entries are supposed to be judged anonymously, on their merits alone. What if a group of editors and writers take turns as judges, awarding each other grants?”
“Does that happen?”
By now, Nick is carefully cutting his hamburger into manageable sections. His expression is fixed in a kind of commedia dell’arte smile that indicates he is listening while turning over the different possibilities of my complaint. Several years later, because of this lunch with him, the NEA procedures are changed.
“Well, so what?” he says and uses his napkin.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s so new about these deals? The Guggenheim does it. The Pulitzer and the National Book Award have been known to be swapped around. Everyone knows about that. How is this any different?”
It is different, I want to say, because it has not happened to me. My name has not been swapped around and does not appear on that list I got in the mail this morning. That’s the difference. That’s the connection. Pileggi’s eyes have a glow in them which suggests he’s thinking along the same lines. Then, I hear myself say, “We’re talking about taxpayers’ money with this one; not the interest on the estate of some guy who went down on the Titanic. These are public monies raised by Congress and supposedly awarded on the basis of merit and not because of somebody’s connections.”
Nick sits back in his chair. “Why don’t you do a piece on it,” he says. He might be ready for dessert.
“Do a piece?”
“Sure, make some calls, do the research, see if your suspicions have any facts out there. Do a piece. For the magazine. For New York.”
But, first, I have to write this book review in 1953 for The New York Herald Tribune. The Enormous Radio and Other Stories by John Cheever is 235 pages long, costs $3. 50 and is published by Funk & Wagnalls—the same people that do the dictionary. The collection of 14 stories all first appeared in The New Yorker where I have already enjoyed reading some of them. Together with John O’Hara’s, Cheever’s work epitomized The New Yorker story for me, written by men who were clearly outsiders. I was putting up the same identity in the cool rooms next to St. Agnes Church.
Cheever’s wry dissection of the weary inhabitants of the Upper East Side has especially gratified my own view from my fifth floor walk-up on East 43rd. How his cold scalpel laid open their empty lives often warmed me as I waited for the macaroni water to boil. His eye for detail, his ear for the nuance in a dialogue, and that special use of the fantastic in the midst of Chekhovian realism, as in the title story, were gifts I had tried to mimic and pass on as my own to the editors of The New Yorker. But now, Belle Rosenbaum has given me the opportunity dreamt of by every apprentice—to offer public praise of one’s master. I could feel a glorious transcendence settle upon my shoulders.
After a leisurely lunch at the Century, Bunny Wilson and I would go our separate ways. I would look up Cheever, perhaps at McSorleys way downtown, a pub with just a gloss of elitism over its working class history; the sawdust on its floor dusting polished loafers. Cheever would be sitting at a corner table, surrounded by friends, a few younger fellows like myself on the fringe. When I sit down, a flicker in the hooded eyes, or so they appear in the bookflap photo, will signal his recognition. The others have not noticed. Later, I find myself standing next to him at the bar.
—Who have you been reading? he’ll ask. A companionable, professional question. An exchange between near equals. While I’m thinking up an answer, Cheever has turned to a man standing next to him. —Oh, Bill, I want you to meet young Masters, who wrote that extraordinarily perceptive review in The New York Herald Tribune.
—Hello, Mr. Styron, I’ll say. I certainly enjoyed The Long March.
—What are you writing these days? Styron will ask and both authors lean forward, intent on my answer.
“I’d like you to read the collection over again,” Belle Rosenbaum will say later. She has called me at my job —orders for Lötte Lehman’s penultimate farewell are still coming in—to say the review she received from me wasn’t exactly what she wanted. “John Cheever is one of my favorite writers,” she says. “I like him very much.”
“He’s one of mine too,” I protest. “I like his work very much, but this collection all together . . .well. . . .”
“Try reading the stories again,” she says, “and see if you may have a different opinion.” Her voice is patient, the tone of a kindergarten teacher handling a charge through some basic task.
“I read the whole collection several times,” I tell her. My review has surprised me, disappointed my expectations, and my disappointments had obviously disappointed Belle Rosenbaum. Maybe something in the air the night I wrote it out; perhaps, a sour stomach might have tainted my appreciation. The editor’s tone also suggests she may have made a mistake entrusting John Cheever to such an unknowing lout. But she would give me another chance; to change my mind, to change my opinion. I could hear the heavy doors of the Century Club closing on the golden fellowship within. I went home that night and re-read the whole collection.
All these events, these conversations are happening at different times but in the same neighborhood. Is their connection only a matter of the same few blocks? This re-tracing of lines in an ill-starred horoscope must begin to prove more than the same old theories of rejection.
My research on the 1979 NEA Literary Fellowships seemed to confirm my suspicions. One contact led to another, from New York to California to Minnesota to Rhode Island to Massachusetts to West Virginia. These interviews enlarged the scope of the inquiry; each one adding substance and evidence to the idea that many of the fellowships had been rigged. Just like the quiz show. Nor was this just a few tradeoffs between some local poets in New York City, but it was nationwide. Was I on to a conspiracy, I asked Pileggi? He smiled.
One particular connection might be representative. In addition to many instances of certain authors being given grants by their own editors or publishers who also served as panel judges, and in addition to several so-called “household awards” in which writing couples doubled their take by winning dual grants—a probability hard to reproduce in any crap game—another curious relationship emerged. Ten percent of the 1979 Fellowships were given to authors published by five or six small presses, most of which did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. These same presses were represented on the panel of judges by either an editor, a publisher, or an in-house author of these same presses. In effect, by giving fellowships to these particular authors, the NEA was also subsidizing the presses that published the work they solicited from these authors, making up a tidy little circle of what could be called “vanity” publishing, and all funded by the U. S. taxpayer.
The article had gone beyond the city limits of New York Magazine; the pieces of string had tied together into a ball larger than I had anticipated, so the magazine paid my $400 phone bill and gave me a generous kill fee. Nick Pileggi called Lewis Latham at Harper’s about the piece and he read it, expressed sympathy for some of the findings but eventually backed off. Victor Navasky of The Nation didn’t think there was anything wrong with editors helping out their authors, and the article was too long for them anyway. The piece made the rounds.
Was the article too hot to handle? Did the attorneys for these journals worry about lawsuits? Did sympathy for the government’s role in subsidizing the arts override these journalists’ usual hectoring of public malfeasance? Or did the article fail to address Nick Pileggi’s original question, “So what?” After all this was 1980 and a lot had happened since 1953 when Charles Van Doren was revealed to be a liar and a cheat. Vietnam. Watergate. What did it matter?
But parts of the piece had been Xeroxed and passed around the summer writing colonies. The accusations had become the talk of po-biz.. Eventually “Go Down Dignified” (from the Frost poem) was published by The Georgia Review in the summer issue of 1981, provoking a national discussion and eventually some changes in the NEA’s procedures meant to make them less vulnerable to cronyism.
“Try it again.” Belle Rosenbaum is giving me another chance in 1953.
“I have read the stories again.” I tell her. “Some of them I read in The New Yorker.”
“Try them again,” she says.
My mother never gets to frame this review for it never appeared, not under my by-line, even though I did try it again. Dutifully, I returned to my apartment and reread the collection, reread whatever I said about it, very much aware that my future with the Book Review was in the balance. But I was reviewing the wrong subject, and I could not alter the vision I had of myself. I needed a change of lenses but would my perspective remain uncorrected? As far as I was concerned, my free speech was being threatened. Belle Rosenbaum considered my opinion adequate to judge an unranked mid-Western novelist, I told the roaches, but not someone who appears regularly in the handbook of the Eastern Establishment! Where, let it be remembered, my own work had almost been accepted! The bells of St. Agnes rang out— ding-aling-ding.
Other reviews began to appear that cruelly reminded me of what I had said. Similar opinions. The stories were sharp insights into this particular urban strata, but read as a collection rather than singly in their magazine publication, their views began to become monotonous, narrow, and the characters become more obvious; the technique less surprising. Whit Burnett in Story No 3 put it the most diplomatically. “. . .in the aggregate they present a rather overwhelming picture not for sustained reading from cover to cover.” Arthur Mizener went to the other extreme of the same opinion in The New Republic. “ Taken at one sitting, the fiction machine is more in evidence. (Cheever) is not a writer of great talent.”
My response had been more along the lines of William Du Bois in the Books of the Times of May 1, 1953. “The melancholy fact remains that a little of Cheever can go a long way. Like all special formulas, his is most effective when taken in small doses—preferably in single installments, with plenty of Addams and Arno in between. Fourteen Cheevers taken in sequence could conceivably be a lethal dose for the too-sensitive reader.”
I clipped the review and sent it to Belle Rosenbaum. She had already pulled my review to give the chore to someone else. See? my orange highlight pencil marked the key lines. The New York Times had said almost the same thing as I had. “I had thought of sending you this clipping,” she wrote back. “He doesn’t like the book either but it is the manner and method of saying that counts.”
Not only have I digressed, but this soiled linen has become a wrangle of old histories, sullen anecdotes. Que sais-je?, as Montaigne would chide me. What’s the connection, Pileggi would ask, a merry flash in his eyes?
“What passes for morality these days,” George Garrett wrote a while back, “is often more a matter of fear (in disguise) than virtue.” When Plato warned us of poets, he could not know about the sons of poets—or even the nephews of poets—who allow themselves to be marketed as the bearers of truth and knowledge. Did the moral discouragement engendered by Van Doren’s fraud prepare us for others? In the galaxy of our corruption, is there a connection between Charles Van Doren (who, it is to be remembered, initially lied to a Congressional committee, while perjuring himself before a grand jury) and Ollie North who also swore to tell the truth to the same body? The complacent, gratifying picture we have of ourselves, amplified by those with a vested interest in that picture, is a cartography that stretches from the shores of Vietnam to the shores of Lake Woebegone.
But, it is finally June and I will take down the plastic sheeting on the apartment windows that overlook East 43rd Street. Warm currents rise from the pavements and shimmer up the facade of the Chrysler Building. One early evening, on my way home from work, I deliver some photographs to the Times. One of my firm’s clients is giving a harpsichord concert at the Little Carnegie Hall. In the elevator, I meet Corky. He’s through work also, and we go around to the China Bowl, off of Times Square, for some chop suey and a beer.
The last time we met at Minetta’s, Corky never mentioned the review of John Cheever, the one with my by-line, that never appeared. I appreciated his discretion, and, in fact, his silence surprised me. But at the China Bowl, he looks up from his plate of noodles and says, “That was a nice ad in The Herald Tribune Book Review.”
“What ad was that?”
“That ad for the dictionary,” Corky says. “You know.” He winks and laughs, very pleased about something. “A full page ad for Webster’s Collegiate.”
“Well, Funk and Wagnalls, right? They publish the Webster’s Collegiate, don’t they?” I stare across the red formica table top as Corky aims a finger at me, sights down its length. “And who put out Cheever’s book? Do you think there’s a connection?”
The all-knowing aim of his look pierces me to this day; I can still see him, laughing at the exposure of my naïveté. Every now and then, I will look through library files of The New York Herald Tribune. I have poured over microfiche, reeling through weeks and months of the Book Review for 1953, trying to find that ad for Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. All in vain, but I am yet to be convinced the ad doesn’t exist. Somewhere in the negative blackness of an old microfilm lie the dim lines which will give these disjointed sightings their proper alignment, their glow and smug confirmation.